Photo by Terrence Henry
Argentina has a reputation for being a "steak only" type of place, a country where the cuisine doesn't really extend beyond a grilled slab of meat, with a little salt (if any) added to the mix.
Yes, on nearly every block, you'll find a steakhouse (parrilla) that uses a wood-fired grill, but next to those steaks on the grill, you'll find short ribs (a prized cut here, but the last one I would ever think of throwing on the grilll), chorizo sausage, blood sausage, kidneys, intestines, and sweetbreads.
As with the steaks, these are all prepared by grilling with just a little salt. There's no brining, marinating, or sautéing, just the grill. There's no black pepper, no option of a mushroom sauce or burgundy reduction. Things are kept simple: Meat. Fire. A Little Salt.
When you come to Argentina, you are likely to be eating steak. A lot of it.
This approach works well for the steaks and sausage, but for me at least, I'm used to having my offal go through more of a transformation process before setting my fork and knife upon it. I like my sweetbreads to have a nice breading, to have been soaked ahead of time to remove the blood and mellow out the taste. I like them to taste like a rich, creamy morsel of buttery fried chicken, I guess, instead of the Argentine preparation which is a little to close to the thymus gland's original form. (And the same goes for the kidneys and intestines. The blood sausage is great, though.)
Which is all a long way of saying that when you come to Argentina, you are likely to be eating steak. A lot of it. And so herewith a guide for enjoying steak here:
1. Temperature. Argentines generally like their steaks cooked medium well to well-done (much like Obama likes his burgers), partly I suspect because they leave some fat on them and like to render it down. If you prefer your steak rare to medium rare, like I do, you'll want to ask for it either "vuelta y vuelta" (basically, a "turn and a turn" of the steak on the grill), which is a true rare, or "jugoso," which technically translates to rare but actually ends up medium rate, or all too often, medium or medium well, in which case you'll need...
2. Patience. Odds are (I would put them at 7 to 1) that your steak will come out one to two temperature grades above what you ordered. I usually smile and politely tell our waiter that the steak isn't cooked properly, and then they take it back. A few minutes later, we'll have a different steak on the table, cooked right. It's important to not be afraid of sending your steak back here, because you'll run into the problem regularly.
3. Tools. Argentine beef is (mostly) free-range and grass-fed, and I think it's a good idea the first few times to take the steak as they serve it, and add just a little salt, to get to know the delicate flavor. But come steak number three or so, you'll be wanting to add a little depth. One option, which won't be on your table, is ground black pepper. But if you ask your waiter, they'll be happy to bring one for you (most of the more popular steakhouses have them). Or you could just pack your own heat.